Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 59 (Part 1)

Psalm 59

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (vv. 5-6, 8 [4-5, 7]) 

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar in many respects to those in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ that we have recently studied. The focus on the punishment of the wicked is especially strong.

There are two stanzas to the poem, each of which contains a common refrain (vv. 7-11a, 15-18) following the Selah pause-indicator. The meter is irregular, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominating the first stanza; one is perhaps inclined to modify the second stanza to match the rhythmic pattern, but any attempt would be questionable at best. Unfortunately, the second stanza does not survive in the only Qumran manuscript of this Psalm (11QPsad), which otherwise might have provided help in confirming the Hebrew text.

On the heading, cf. the previous studies on Psalm 57 and 58. On the term <T*k=m! (miktam), cf. the earlier study on Psalm 16. The David tradition alluded to in the superscription is that of 1 Samuel 19:8ff.

The two stanzas of the Psalm are clearly delineated:

    • Stanza 1 (vv. 2-6 [1-5])—A prayer to YHWH for protection and deliverance from the Psalmist’s enemies, with a contrast established between the wicked and the righteous
      • Refrain (vv. 7-11a [6-10a])
    • Stanza 2 (vv. 11b-14 [10b-13])—Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
      • Refrain (vv. 15-18 [14-17])

Stanza 1: VV. 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“Snatch me away from (those) hostile to me, O Mightiest;
from (the one)s standing up against me, set me up high!”

This opening couplet has a loose 3-beat rhythm which establishes both the meter and the tone of the Psalm. The prayer in the first stanza takes the form of a lament. The Psalmist calls out for help against his enemies. The parallelism of the couplet is conceptually precise, though formally presented as a chiasm:

    • “snatch me away” (vb lx^n`)
      • “from those hostile to me” (verbal noun, vb by~a*)
      • “from those standing against me” (verbal noun, vb <Wq)
    • “set me up high” (vb bg~c*)

In terms of the theme of deliverance, the aspect in the first line is rescue, while in the second line it is protection. YHWH protects the Psalmist by bringing him up to a high and inaccessible (and thus secure) place.

Verse 3 [2]

“Snatch me away from (the one)s making trouble,
and from men of blood, make me safe!”

This second couplet matches the form and focus of the first almost precisely. The Psalmist’s enemies here are generalized as the wicked who corrupt society and would persecute the righteous (and harm the innocent). They are characterized verbally in the first line as “(one)s making [i.e. who make] trouble [/w#a*]”. In the second line, they are described as “men of blood [<ym!d*]”. The plural <ym!d* (lit. “bloods”) almost always means “acts of bloodshed,” often understood generally as acts of violence (even when no blood is actually shed). Dahood (II, p. 67) would understand <ym!D* here as “images” (that is, idols), from the root hm*D* (I), “be like, resemble”, as also in Ps 26:9; 55:24 [23] (I, p. 163; II, p. 39). Both interpretations would be valid, since, from the standpoint of the Psalms, violence and idolatry (i.e., worship of other deities) are equally characteristic of the wicked.

The suffixed hiphil imperative of the verb uv^y` could be translated “save me”; however, given the parallel with verse 2 [1], it is better to bring out the aspect of protection (“make me safe”), parallel with the verb bg~c* (cf. above).

Verse 4 [3]

“For, see!—they lie in wait for my soul,
(the) strong (one)s gather against me;
(with) no breaking (of the bond) by me,
and no sin by me, O YHWH.”

The 3-beat (3+3) couplet has been expanded with the addition of another 3-beat line, which here in translation is better represented as a short (irregular) couplet. The added line introduces the important theme of the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The Psalmist wishes to make clear that he his innocent—he has neither broken the bond with YHWH (and his fellow Israelites), nor has he sinned. The verb uv^P* is typically used in the context of the covenant—i.e., breaking the bond or trust between two people (or parties). To say that one has upheld the covenant and has not sinned, means that a person is righteous (and right/just before God). There is thus no reason or cause for attacks against the Psalmist; the attacks come only because of the wickedness of his adversaries.

Here the wicked are called “strong (one)s” (<yz]u*), indicating that they possess worldly power and influence. In terms of the royal background of such Psalms, the Psalmist’s opponents would be princes, nobles, or other vassal kings, people who actually could muster a military force. However, in the Psalms, this aspect has been generalized, often under the influence of Wisdom tradition, so that the motif of strength/power more properly characterizes the oppressive (and violent) might of the wicked.

Verse 5 [4]

“(I am) without crookedness, (yet) they run and stand (against me)—
rouse (yourself) to meet me, and see (for yourself)!”

The first line repeats the sense of verse 4 [3]: the Psalmist’s righteousness/innocence is again expressed in negative (or privative) terms—he is without (yl!B=) any “crookedness” (/ou*). Yet the wicked run to attack him, taking up a position against him (vb /WK, “be fixed/firm,” in something of a military sense).

In the second line, the Psalmist again calls on YHWH to rescue/deliver him. In particular, he asks God to come meet him (vb ar^q*); because of the urgency of the situation, the Psalmist would dare seek to stir God to action (vb rWu [I], “rouse [oneself], awaken”). Once YHWH comes and sees the situation, He cannot but act to rescue and protect His faithful servant.

Verse 6 [5]

“You, YHWH, (commander) of (the heavenly) armies,
(you the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael,
awaken to reckon (judgment on) all (the) nations!
May you not show favor to (those) traitors making trouble!”
Selah

The final two lines of v. 6 form a couplet that builds upon the second line of v. 5 (cf. above). The verb JWq (“wake [up]”) here is generally synonymous with the earlier rWu (I) (“awaken, rouse oneself [from sleep]”), and the basic idea is the same: God is to rouse Himself and come to rescue/deliver the Psalmist. In so doing, YHWH will effectively bring judgment against the wicked. Here the wicked are identified (in traditional religious-cultural terms) with the “nations”; but, more specifically, they are traitors to the covenant with YHWH. The verb dg~B* generally denotes deceptive or treacherous behavior. By making “trouble” (/w#a*, cf. also in v. 3 [2]) for the righteous, the wicked show that they have rejected and betrayed the covenant bond between YHWH and His people.

The root dqp is notoriously difficult to render into English; here, it is probably best understood in the sense of meting out judgment (punishment) on the wicked. Two of the fundamental meanings could apply: (1) “appoint” (i.e., an appointed moment of judgment), or (2) “reckon” (i.e., call to account); I have opted for the latter.

In this Psalm, the hl*s# (Selah) pause-marker serves to indicate the structure of the composition; this is not always the case, but here, in each stanza, the refrain follows directly after the pause.

Refrain: vv. 7-11a [6-10a]
Verse 7 [6]

“They sit until evening,
they howl like a dog
and go around (the) city.”

The refrain begins with a distinct shift in rhythm (aided by the preceding Selah-pause), with verse 7 (= v. 15) taking the form of a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2). These terse, staccato-like lines express the habitual conduct of the wicked in simplistic terms, using the animal-motif of a pack of dogs. The initial verb bWv means “turn, return,” and the line would then be translated “they return at evening”. However, I am inclined to follow Dahood (II, p. 69) in reading bwv here as a byform of bvy (“sit”). This seems to make better sense in context—i.e., the wicked (like dogs) sit and wait until evening; it is only at night that they howl and then come out to wander around the city. This behavior is also appropriate to the treacherous character of the wicked (cf. verse 6 above).

Verse 8 [7]

“See—
they gush out by their mouth,
swords (come out) by their lips:
‘For who is hearing (us)?'”

Verse 8 is essentially another 2-beat tricolon (like v. 7); only the initial interjection hN@h! (“see!”) distorts the rhythmic pattern slightly. Again, the behavior of the wicked is crude and repellent. The verb ub^n` in the first line means “pour/gush out”, but often in the decidedly negative sense of something uncontrolled or foul. Some translations render it here as “belch”, which would be quite appropriate for the context. What comes out of the mouth of the wicked is foul-smelling and extreme, but it also indicates a violent purpose—i.e., the image of “swords” coming from the lips in the second line. The third line, it seems, summarizes the thinking of the wicked. There is no need to curb or restrain their crude and evil speech, for “Who is there hearing it?”

Verse 9 [8]

“But you, YHWH, will laugh at them,
you will mock at all (the) nations!”

Like the stanza itself, the refrain shifts in tone, from describing the behavior of the wicked to an anticipation of the judgment YHWH will bring upon them. Their own mocking taunts will be turned back on them. God will laugh at them and mock them, using the parallel verbs qj^v* (“laugh”) and gu^l* (“mock, deride”). The wicked are identified here with the “nations” (cf. v. 6 [5] above); but this is merely a traditional way of speaking, even when the wicked within Israel are in view.

A shift in rhythm matches the shift in tone, as we have here a 3+2 couplet.

Verses 10-11a [9-10a]

“My Mighty (One is) my strength—
thus shall I be guarded;
for (the) Mightiest (is) my (refuge) up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

The final lines of the refrain are problematic. The parallel in v. 18 [17] rather clearly shows that the verse division here is in error–the first two words of v. 11 belong with v. 10. Again, one very much wishes that these verses were preserved in the Qumran manuscript (11QPsad), and could thus assist us in establishing a secure text, but that is not the case. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 70f) in emending iyla, dividing it into two words yK! yl!a@, and also parsing hrmva as a passive (niphal) form, hr*m@V*a# (“I shall be guarded”). Also the opening word oZu% (“his strength”) should be modified to yZu% (“my strength”), based on the parallel in the second stanza. The first part of verse 10 would then read:

hr*m@V*a# yK! yl!a@ yZ]u%
“My Mighty (One is) my strength,
thus I shall be guarded [i.e. protected]”

Much the same is expressed in the final two lines, in a simple parallel couplet:

“for (the) Mightiest (is) my place up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

In each line the plural title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e. ‘God’), possibly substituted for the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) originally (as is typical in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms). The suffixed nouns yB!G~v=m! and yD!s=j^ are parallel (synonymous) terms. The first noun, bG~v=m!, means “place up high”, referring to high and inaccessible location that serves as a safe, protected place; the related verb bg~c* was used in a similar sense in v. 2 (cf. above). The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness,” but also frequently denotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in relation to the covenant bond; and, indeed, ds#j# typically carries this sense in the Psalms. The suffixed noun here would seem to mean something like “my loyal (protector)”.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

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